Brazil: Riots, Robberies as Blackout Leaves Entire State with No Electricity or Water

Amapa riot

The state of Amapá, Brazil — on the nation’s northeastern border — has had nearly no access to electricity after a storm took out its power grid on November 3. As of Thursday, government officials say 80 percent of the state will have some electricity, but residents complain that they are now running out of food and water, rationing drinking water and foregoing showers.

At its peak, 90 percent of Amapá had no electricity whatsoever. Even as the government claims the restoration of electricity to 80 percent of the state, the plant supplying the power will only offer electricity in “rotations” so that every part of the state gets a few hours of power.

The local government will soon reportedly launch a new rotation schedule, outlets reported on Thursday, in which parts of the state will receive electricity only in three-to-four hour blocks, then the power will be diverted to another part of the state.

Amapá’s civil police announced on Wednesday that preliminary investigations did not indicate that the fire that caused the blackout, traced back to an electric substation run by the infrastructure firm Isolux, was caused by lightning, though it did appear to occur during a storm. The fire affected the substation’s transformers, cutting off power; the substation feeds power to 13 of the state’s 16 municipalities. Police executed a search and seizure warrant at the site to protect evidence from being destroyed, given Brazil’s long history of corruption involving government kickback schemes for infrastructure contracts.

Brazilian media have reported that over 70 protests have occurred regarding the incident in the past week. Protesters destroyed at least one police station.

Access to water has reportedly become limited as the infrastructure used to pump water into homes does not work without a functional power grid. The food is running out, local store owners have complained, because perishables are rotting. The combined presence of large amounts of rotting meat and lack of sanitation without access to water may prove a significant health hazard — even more so during a pandemic that has caused more deaths in Brazil than anywhere in the world, exempting the United States and suspected cases in rogue states.

Locals have rioted, starting fires in the middle of streets of major cities in the state and demanding not just food and water, but protection from criminals. Amapá residents have told local outlets that they have experienced a significant, and unchallenged, spike in armed robberies and other violent crime since the blackout began.

Reporters for the newspaper Estadao, visiting a suburb of state capital Macapá, described the situation on Monday as a “war zone.”

“People have to not accept this anymore,” an unnamed woman standing in front of a street fire in Santana, a city outside of Macapá, told an Estadao reporter, referring to the poor infrastructure. “People have children at home, food is running out.”

Another woman lamented to the newspaper, “We can’t take it anymore. This is suffering day and night … no water, we don’t know what to do, no internet, no communication, no anything; this isn’t fair.”

“There are people who can’t shower, they can’t even drink water, they have no water,” another woman protesting told the newspaper. “They have no money to buy candles. People are in a calamity here, asking for aid, a response from the public defender.”

Estadao documented some police presence in Santana, forces that appeared to be military police shooting out into the darkness to stop further destruction. The police were patrolling what appeared to previously be a main street, walking past a destroyed pharmacy. Reports indicate that police shot at least one protester, a teen, with a rubber bullet last week during riots. Relatives of the victim claim he may be blinded.

Protests continued in Macapá on Wednesday, according to O Globo, demanding not just some electricity, but consistent access to power. Authorities claim Amapá will return to normal by the end of the week.

In another affected, Buritizal, local residents complained of robberies and violent crime skyrocketing in the darkness.

“Yesterday afternoon … [a friend] was robbed at gunpoint. My house was invaded. Yy daughter has asthma; it is necessary for her to have her inhaler. I ran out of access to the emergency room so they didn’t support me, then when I got home, I found this situation,” Neuciane Lima, a local mother, told media on Tuesday, participating in a protest.

The lack of water has led some in desperation to attempt to gather water out of roadside puddles, presumably to drink and shower. Groceries have begun throwing away large amounts of rotting meat — temperatures in Amapá, where summer is looming, are regularly reaching 85ºF — that is attracting flies and vultures.

Government officials have brought in truckloads of water, prompting crowds during a pandemic in which social distancing is pivotal. Locals complain the water is not enough.

Amapá, like much of Brazil, suffers from endemic corruption. The state’s governor, Waldez Góes, was convicted in November 2019 on charges of embezzlement for allegedly skimming money out of government worker payroll accounts. Under Brazilian law, those convicted of a crime do not have to serve any prison time or lose their government positions until every appeal is exhausted, so Góes remains governor to this day despite being sentenced to six years in prison.

Brazilian federal police launched a raid against Amapá officials in June after evidence suggested that the state government has misappropriated 4.9 million reais (about $900,000) in Chinese coronavirus emergency funds.

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